AstroFest offers evenings of astronomy activities, stargazing during Arts Fest

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State's popular "AstroFest" program, a four-night festival of astronomy activities and stargazing during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, will run from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 10, to Saturday, July 13. All ages are welcome to participate in a variety of exciting and educational activities sponsored by the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Events are free and will be conducted rain or shine in classrooms and in the planetarium located on the fifth floor of Davey Laboratory.

On clear nights, visitors will be treated to views of Saturn, with its magnificent rings, through telescopes at the Davey Laboratory rooftop observatory. "Showing people their first view of another world is one of the most rewarding things about being an astronomer," said Jane Charlton, a professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the founding organizer of AstroFest. "Visitors also find it amazing to see first-hand how many stars are out there in star clusters, many of which have their own planets," she added.

Outside Davey Laboratory, an astronomy-themed dance performance will welcome visitors, who can also pause to launch a bottle-rocket. "Dancers will be costumed as the planets of the solar system," said Nahks Tr'Ehnl, an instructional designer in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. "This event nicely ties the AstroFest event to the Arts Festival theme," he noted. Tr'Ehnl designed the 2013 AstroFest T-shirts, which will be available for purchase at the event.

Featured presentations will vary from night to night, with subjects ranging from black holes, to life in the universe, to science and religion and even to "zombie stars." The astronomers' version of an "American Idol" competition will return for a second year. In this performance, Penn State astronomers compete with each other for the audience vote by giving three-minute presentations. "It is a local version of a recent national and international competition," said Brendan Mullan, a recent doctoral graduate from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the 2012 winner of the national NASA FameLab competition.

AstroFest demonstrations will include the cloud chamber, where visitors learn about sub-atomic particles, and the gravity gym, where visitors can discover how much common objects would weigh under the intense gravity of Jupiter or under the weak gravity of the moon. The popular Finding Planets lab will be open for its third year, allowing a "hands-on" exploration of how astronomers have found hundreds of planets beyond our solar system. Young visitors often enjoy the rather messy "make-a-comet" and cratering stations, where they learn how the surfaces of planets and moons are shaped.

Young visitors also may keep an AstroFest "activity passport" -- a stamped record of completed activities and visits to different booths. Among the astronomy-themed prize rewards are alien glow-in-the-dark putty, light-up wands, miniature dinosaur skeletons and inflatable aliens. At the Astronomy Question and Answer booth, both adults and youngsters can answer astronomy quiz questions to win astronomy posters, lithographs and bookmarks.

"We are all so excited about the program that we are putting together for AstroFest this year," said Jane Charlton, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics who is the founding organizer. "This year we will even have a 'Star Trek' spoof play as one of the feature presentations," she said.

Find more information at, "like" AstroFest on Facebook or contact the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics by phone at 814-865-0418 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by email at

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Last Updated July 17, 2013